Why Do People Turn to Conspiracy Theories During Times of Uncertainty?

The emergence of a “COVID-19 belief system” is giving researchers new insight into how and why people turn to conspiracy theories as a way to cope.

Along with the rise of COVID-19 came a group of related, false conspiracy theories that range from the belief that 5G cell towers are spreading the virus to the myth that Bill Gates is working on a mind control device to insert into vaccines.

The emergence of these inaccurate beliefs is giving new insight into how and why people turn to conspiracy theories as a way to cope during times of uncertainty, according to a new study conducted by political psychologist Dr. Joanne Miller.

“All of these conspiracy theories are positively correlated,” Miller said. “Meaning that people who believe one often believe others of them and they hang together as a belief system.”

In the study, “Do COVID-19 Conspiracy Theory Beliefs Form a Monological Belief System?” published earlier this year in the Canadian Journal of Political Science, Miller, whose research has previously focused on the psychology behind political attitudes, found that the more uncertainty respondents reported feeling, the “tighter” the conspiracy belief system became.

“It makes total sense, because if you are feeling uncertainty and you’re grasping at explanations, you’re going to grasp here, and you’re going to look over here, and you’re going to look over here and you’re going to be willing to entertain a whole bunch of these conspiracy theories if you think that’s going to help you reign in some of that uncertainty,” Miller said.

Other conspiracies tested among roughly 3,000 survey respondents are that COVID-19 is a hoax despite ample evidence to the contrary, that COVID-19 is a biological weapon released by China and that the media or scientists exaggerate COVID-19 in order to hurt President Donald Trump. 

Canadian Journal of Political Science

But not everyone who feels uncertain turns to conspiracy theories as a way to cope. Other motives, including conspiratorial thinking, denialism and partisan-motivated reasoning are also contributing factors that have been activated by the current pandemic, according to the study.

Conspiratorial thinking is a general tendency to explain all kinds of events as having an unknown, often sinister explanation behind them. Denialism arises when people deny official accounts of events, either because they don’t trust the source or are generally skeptical. Partisan-motivated reasoning occurs when people are trying to protect their own worldview.

“Republicans and Democrats are feeling uncertain, but Republicans might be more likely to go to conspiracy theories as a way to either scapegoat or explain a way maybe why a Republican president is being criticized or maybe not doing as well at handling the pandemic as we might like,” Miller said.

Previous research also indicates that people are even willing to believe multiple conspiracy theories that appear to contradict each other, Miller’s study notes. Even “incompatible” conspiracy theories are held together, by what Miller calls “higher-order” beliefs, for example, the belief that government officials are often deceptive.

“To the extent that COVID-19 [conspiracy theories] — even contradictory ones— form a monological belief system, attempts at debunking them individually will likely fail,” the study says.

A more effective approach may be to tackle the “higher-order” needs that give way to the belief system in the first place.

“I think that it’s important for us to recognize that what’s underlying these is that uncertainty and how can we maybe help our friends and family members cope with the uncertainty right now in maybe more productive ways,” Miller said.